Thursday, July 22, 2010

Life Developments

A few general updates on my life here, as I think of them. Caution: This post will be devoid of all insight on the country, the language, etc.; I'll save some observations for the weekend.
  • I need to stop bringing up my frustration with my Chinese ability and the way the curriculum is arranged. A few days ago it won me a long explanation by the director, also the writer of our textbook (oops) of why his curriculum is so awesome, and then an overly sympathetic e-mail from a teacher. My semi-native-speaking friend, upon discovering my obsessive concern with my Chinese ability, has also taken to telling me that my Chinese is really good; but all that is quite the opposite of what I need. What I need is people to correct my errors. That said, what I've been dreading for a long time finally happened: a visiting professor publicly called me out for mispronouncing my own name. It's an awesome name, but the last character (龙) happens to include one of the two Chinese sounds that I find hardest to pronounce, and it's a continual source of embarrassment for me.
  • College-age girls are ridiculous. Or maybe it's just the Harvard kids. Out of our friend group (2 Yale guys, 2 Harvard girls), the one girl just broke up with her boyfriend of two years (a process that's been hinted at for weeks) and I'm suspecting more and more that the other has an eating disorder. Only Quan De and I seem to be living relatively placid, reasonable lives at this point.
  • At this point, I'm pretty sure I'm dating that girl I met in Vics. It's no big thing and it's markedly different from dating someone who fluently speaks the same language as you, but I'm quite happy about it and the way our relationship has progressed. I think she's a lovely girl and I need to stop telling her (albeit mostly truthfully) that I'm studying when she calls.
  • I am trying, belatedly, to further cut down on my communications with people, particularly in English. I still send and receive way too many e-mails on a daily basis.
  • My visa situation has worsened. ACC, the fall Chinese program here in Beijing, is switching campuses; their office is still at the old campus, and the people at the new campus have already gone on break. This means that I can't get a reprint of my invitation to attend as a foreign student. The reason I'd need it reprinted is that they used my American name, whereas it ended up that I got my Chinese visa on my Spanish passport. Basically it's a huge mess and I have to spend all afternoon trekking to the opposite side of Beijing to sort it out. (Un?)fortunately the worst-case, and most likely, scenario is that I'll have to cut short my inter-program break because my visa is set to expire about a week before ACC starts. I guess it's not as bad as having to leave the country, but I'm particularly annoyed because I have/had some vague but wonderful plans to be on the other side of the country at that time.
  • After a week of largely eating lamb and packaged, sweet-ish bread in Inner Mongolia, I am now back to eating like a healthy human being. This includes a glass or two of milk and a few fruits a day, bought specially to balance my diet.
  • A few teachers and students are going to "Taiwantown" on Saturday! I'm super excited because 1) I like all of the people who are going, especially the teachers, and 2) it's been almost a year since I've eaten 刈包  (guabao)
  • I found a few MP3s from Firefly recently and I've been listening to them over and over. I really need to watch some episodes, posthaste. If all goes as planned, I think the four of us here are going to watch the pilot in my room on Saturday night. I've also been listening to a lot of the Star Wars soundtrack, which I just discovered I have (it's in WMA format so it never showed up in iTunes). John Williams... what a man.

And now for bed. I've barely studied for tomorrow's test, as one of the teachers took a liking to my report on Inner Mongolia and decided to re-correct it to a level that would pass for a real Chinese university essay. This involved fixing about something like 50 errors or strange constructions/diction that the previous teacher to correct my report had decided not to deal with. Then the "McDonald's is half-price between 10 and 12!" midnight snack run, and now all of a sudden it's time for bed.

Advice from Mao Zedong that I should probably heed a bit more closely: 好好学习,天天上上。"Study well, improve every day."


Monday, July 19, 2010

Lamb, Camels, and Genghis Khan

内蒙古! Inner Mongolia! I don't know where to start, so let's run through some memorable experiences first:
  1. I rode a horse; and later, a camel
  2. I ate a piece of raw liver from a freshly killed lamb.
  3. I spoke at length with herders, tour guides, a female worker at a textile factory, and both high school and university students.
  4. I may or may not have bought ~50 movies and 20 TV episodes of pretty solid quality for the equivalent of $5 USD. My favorite collection title: "Pirates Nuclear Ships Movie Collect."

Overall, the trip could have been better planned: I've probably spent more hours on a bus in the last week than I've ever spent in my entire life, and it's more of a shame because this has likely been my first and last trip to the area.

That said, now for the interesting things:

First of all, it turned out that our interviews, set up with locals by HBA, were much more of a highlight of the trip than I had originally expected. I came to relax and ride horses, but I ended up really appreciating the opportunity to talk to people, particularly the herders. I learned that fewer and fewer Mongolian children speak Mongolian; that the Chinese government actually treats them surprisingly well (no one-child policy for Mongolians, choice of free education at either a Mongolian-speaking or Chinese-speaking institution, etc); and that the best-tasting lamb comes from a 6-year-old grass-fed animal slaughtered during the winter months.

I also heard a lot about my topic - the barrenification of the grassland. Unfortunately my essay isn't going to be as awesome as I imagined: I need more info and statistics and a better understanding of how the hydrogen cycle works on a local level. Also, my interviews with the herders brought out some views and experiences that conflict with certain aspects what the artist and NGO leader had told me, and there's no chance to go back and forth between them to ask for responses and discover who's right. Basically, my conclusion is this: In most areas, the grasslands (the ones that haven't been turned into fields) aren't nearly what they once were a mere few decades ago, and in fact it's hard to call the place 'grassland' or 'steppe' any more. (Instead, it looks kind of like my front yard back home.) The cause is in question: local herders say it's the weather, but possible deeper (or unrelated & other) causes include nearby farming and manufacturing activities. Government policy encouraging/compelling fixed dwellings and divided plots of land may also be to blame, but my information on the subject is incomplete, and to their credit recent government policy seems aimed at conserving what little grass is left. To sum it up, unfortunately, i must resort to what I'm told is an oft-used phrase in Chinese academia: "有待研究." I.e., "There is still research to be done."

The day-by-day:

  • Night 0: Worst traffic jam ever. Why? A bus driver up ahead fell asleep and the road was narrow. We were behind a trailer full of pigs. Got into the hotel in Hohhot (呼和浩特) at something like 4:00 AM. The power was out.
  • Day 1: Woke up at ~8:00 A.M. Bus ride to the grasslands. Interviewed a herder, saw a lamb slaughtered (for future reference: you put a hole in its side, reach in, and pinch the aorta to stop blood flow), ate the aforementioned liver (mm delicious. but, with a nosebleed aftertaste.), and had an "everything inside the lamb" dinner. Saw a performance, including singing and wrestling (the latter is one of the three sports of Mongolian men, the other two being horse racing and archery). Did some singing and wrestling myself (win? & epic fail, respectively).

  • Day 2: Bus ride to a different, much more touristy set of Mongolian tents (yurts), though to be fair nobody but tourists use them any more. Walked about; discovered some cows and horses (parents and two littl'uns) and part of a lamb(?) spine. Rode horses - a first-time experience which definitely depends on the horse (my first was a terror, my second, fantastic). Belted out "草原上升起不落的太阳" ("Upon the Steppe Rises the Unsetting Sun") as I rode.

  • Day 3: More interviewing of herders. Completely-not-worth-it bus riding. Arrive in our hotel near Oordos (?尔多斯).
  • Day 4: Interviewing of Oordos textile factory workers. The conditions, hours, etc seemed to be pretty good, though one can never be too sure about these things. Visit to the memorial to Genghis Khan (成吉思汗), where I discovered that Mongols too have long used the savvastika (which you know as the swastika and the Mongols call by another name), specifically in the same orientation that Hitler adopted but with the meaning of "harmony." I''m not certain, but I'd be willing to bet it entered Mongol culture from ancient Hinduism/Buddhism. I'm also curious as to where Hitler/Hitler's people got it from - I used to think it was straight from the Indian/Chinese religious usage, but I'm now thinking it was from something like Genghis Khan's bow.

  • Day 5: Party in the desert. We went west a bit to some legitimate desert (a piece of the Gobi? I should know this but I don't); besides getting sand in every nook and cranny of our bodies we also had the opportunity to ride camels, "sand surf" (aka sand sled), and drive sizeable go-karts. Returned to Hohhot and ate an excellent hot-pot dinner (oh! Inner Mongolian lamb on the bone! how I will miss you!), followed by a very brief beer-drinking competition with the extremely friendly locals at the next table over. Approximately 60% of the restaurant was openly staring at us.

  • Day 6: Tour of one of the facilities of 蒙牛, a massive dairy company that simultaneously seems incredibly modern/professional/quality-oriented and is also known to be responsible for multiple 'tainted milk' scandals in China. (Rest easy: they do very little exporting.) Visit to a temple, which a few of us decided not to visit in favor of shopping. I bought an awesome knife, which has no practical use and will be sent home with a friend because I can't take it on trains here. Sitting down outside to "write our reports" was a failure - apparently the area only rarely gets Western tourists, and we were very clearly turning heads. (By "we," I mean me, because the friend I was with is of Chinese descent while I on the other hand am white.) Eventually we accumulated a crowd of the braver Inner Mongolians and satisfied their curiosity by offering our opinions on Bill Gates and the American political system. Spent a fantastically excessive evening with two of my three best friends at HBA (the third didn't come to Inner Mongolia), playing "国王游" (better known as Kings) and watching pieces of the movies we'd bought. ("Every time you hear 'Doctor Jones,' 干杯...")

  • Day 7: Interviewing of students at (one of?) the best middle-high school(s) in Inner Mongolia; then interviewing of students at the best university in Inner Mongolia. 9-hour bus ride back.

And now we're here! Back to the daily grind. If I have time later this weekend, I'll write again on another topic to make up for not having time to update the blog last week.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010


As evidenced by my failure to blog on Sunday, the weeks are now flashing by.

A brief recap of my life since last I wrote, in no reasonable order:

1. I'm researching the desertification of Inner Mongolia. The fifth week of every summer program, HBA plans 'social study' trips to several locations - most notably to the Shaolin Temple (in Hunan Province) and to Inner Mongolia, but students and teachers will also be in places like Qingdao, Shanghai, Beijing, and the Hebei countryside. Each student picks a topic, and I chose desertification because someone last year did it/it seemed interesting/I don't know nearly enough about Inner Mongolia to pick my own topic. I never really intended to take the social study project very seriously, as I'm pretty sure the reason why Louis has repeatedly described last year's trip as "the best week of my life" had more to do with riding horses and sand-surfing than with writing the report at the end. (And after all, at this point 1,500 characters, or ~900 English words, seems like nothing given an entire week to produce. More on that later.)

It appears, though, that forces completely within my control have another fate in store for me. Last night I was doing some really quick background research on desertification and Inner Mongolia (another reason why the social study project shouldn't be a big deal: we don't have the time to do any solid, objective research to supplement our interviews), and I came across an article (in English, of course) that mentioned a 60-some-year-old artist named Chen Jiqun. Apparently he, like many young people at the time, was sent to the countryside (for "re-education," "learning from the people," "gain agricultural experience," etc.) instead of attending college as part of the "Down to the Countryside"/"Work in the Fields" Movement (上山下乡运动) of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Chen ended up living in Inner Mongolia for over 20 years, and upon returning to Beijing has in recent years published a few articles on desertification in Inner Mongolia; besides this, he has also started an NGO (not exactly the most common practice in China) with the aim of educating Inner Mongolian herdsmen and helping them to protect the few areas of grassland that remain.

I didn't know if Chen was still in Beijing, or even still alive, but last night I found his old art web site with a Google search and decided to e-mail him. Surprisingly, he got back to me this morning, and we've set up an interview for tomorrow! I'm incredibly excited and also very nervous. I will definitely be bringing my iTouch and its lovely Chinese-English dictionary app for all of the complicated words he's bound to use, along with the hope that he's patient and speaks clearly. (On the phone, my greatest weakness, I could understand him very well, so I think the odds are good.) In truth I have my doubts that he is a true expert - in the sense of the science of desertification, the broader significance for China, etc - and I'm also worried that because the HBA trip will be heading to a different part of Inner Mongolia (which is vast), our focal points will be a bit mismatched; that said, I'm really looking forward to getting some background from him, and to conducting my first legitimate Chinese interview, with a pretty legitimate guy to boot.

2. We went to see Peking Opera on Saturday. Bright, funny, acrobatic, and musical, Peking Opera is very much a performance for the common people, which I had heard but never really internalized until I finally saw it. Thankfully they had both the Chinese and English text on digital screens to either side of the stage. I'm told that as foreign interest in Peking Opera is waxing, Chinese interest is waning. Although it was definitely fun, I can understand that: I have to say that except for the old man and his elaborate pantomime of tying up a boat (on stage, he carried only a paddle), I was more impressed by the incredibly talented guys who poured tea for us before the show began, and if you're paying top dollar for what has historically been the entertainment of the lower classes then it may just not be worth it. If I can borrow pictures from someone, I'll post them.

3. On Friday, I went out with the local girl I had met a few weeks back and two of her friends; it was my first time singing karaoke on the mainland. It's little different from Taiwan, except that in Taiwan it's more expensive but nobody tries to give you an unwanted backrub while you're in the bathroom and then demand payment. I also learned a very simple drinking game, played with dice, called 七八酒, which I played with my apple vinegar instead of actual 酒. (Note: the first two syllables of the game's name are the words for "7" and "8," and the last syllable, "jiu3," is a pun in that when spoken it can mean either "9" or "liquor"). More importantly, I put my new knowledge of Chinese songs to good use - I'm learning about one a week - as well as my ability to read traditional characters, as the lyrics of nearly all karaoke "MTV"s (i.e. music videos) are written in traditional characters.

4. Also on Friday, I got the first of a 3-part rabies vaccine series, which will 'hopefully' immunize me for life. It's kind of a strange vaccine to get because it's not actual immunization - one still needs treatment very soon after being bitten or scratched by an animal. However, it does remove one of the post-exposure treatment requirements, immunoglobulin, which is apparently fairly hard to come by on short notice, particularly when you're coming from rural China. (Even the U.S. had a shortage a few years back, and it's not like we've had nationwide rabies outbreaks recently.) At the hospital, an English-speaking establishment staffed by Western-trained doctors and recommended by the HTH Worldwide (my insurance carrier this year), I noticed that some of the patients were Chinese, which I thought was a bit surprising. When I asked the nurse, she said that 90% of the patients were foreigners and the other 10% were wealthy nationals; apparently good Western-trained doctors are also hard to come by in China. Mine happened to be Mr. International: from Iran, studied in the U.S., lived in Haiti/Dominican Republic/Honduras, and is now here; speaks Spanish, English, and (I assume) Farsi fluently, and sounds like his Chinese is good enough to at least pass muster in daily life here.

5. Happy 4th of July: Our program secretary made Friday's 'Chinese table' into a pizza lunch for us, and I ate some surprisingly delicious slices of yummy... this following Thursday's embarrassing but satisfying trip to McDonald's. On Sunday, I had a mini-fete in my room with a cake I had ordered at the campus store - shoutout here to David Demres, who did the same on a much larger scale last year in Taiwan - and the cake, too, was surprisingly delicious.

6. This weekend, I had a few hours to kill and wanted to get out of the room, so I visited Peiking University, known to everyone here as BeiDa. It's really an amazing sight, and I can also see why it's said to be home to the most lovers per square mile in all of Beijing: the campus is 1/10 beautiful buildings (china-style; pagoda roofs and all) and 9/10 gorgeous grounds, something like a 15,000-student version of the "small liberal arts college" model. If the campus itself isn't park-like enough, you can visit the large Yuanmingyuan Park just to the north. What most impressed me, though, as I walked past the massive library to and down toward the lake, past graduation photos and small tour groups and students studying on rocks, was the sense that this place trains the best of the best. By some measures BeiDa is one of the hardest schools in the world to get into - everyone who takes the national test has a shot, and even if you discount the poorly educated competition you're still left with a huge pool of well-trained competitors who have been studying 8 hours a day outside of regular class time for the past four years. When I wasn't aimlessly leaning against a staircase and thinking about the movie "Summer Palace" or how I would get to the roof of the library if I had some guts/parkour skills, I was busy being so impressed that I've even started to regret, a bit, turning down the opportunity to study at BeiDa for the year in favor of what I hope to be better language programs at other universities in Beijing and Taipei. But then again, perhaps - either because of my Chinese ability or because of the program itself - I would never have actually gotten to integrate into the BeiDa community, and it would have been a waste to attend; I'll never know.

7. To get to BeiDa, I rode my bike; this is the second trip I've taken of any length, so like everyone else I must of course offer my two cents on Chinese traffic. It's not that there are no rules, per se, so much as it is that different modes of transport bend/break those rules to varying degrees. Cars are the scariest (the whole 'turn whenever!' policy is, I think, the one good example of a lack of traffic laws, but I'm not 100% sure of this), but they're also the most likely to follow the rules of the road, most notably not going forward through a red light. Now and then, a car will use the bike lane, but hey. Mopeds, motorcycles, and motor scooters, on the other hand, often do whatever they want, including using the sidewalks and driving the wrong way down the bike lanes. Bikes always do whatever they want, weaving through traffic like it's nobody's business, and pedestrians are the same but with more mobility. No one group really yields to another - on a bike or on foot one watches traffic, not the lights or pedestrian crossing signals - but nobody really wants to kill anyone else either, and they won't run you over if you're assertive enough and give them enough time to stop. It's actually, perversely, a lot of fun, and not that much of a step up from someone who cut his teeth biking like a madman on the mean streets of New Haven; the only thing I regret about the situation is that I can't spare enough concentration to read most of the Chinese signs that I pass so I'm not getting a very good idea of what businesses are lining the streets that I'm biking.

8. Speaking of traffic, here's the list: i.e., the set of calamities that, given my absentminded nature, I've been expecting for some time now.
  • Lock self out of room. (check)
  • Bicycle breaks down. (check)
  • Lose a lot of stuff. (check: hat on day 2, something else I can't even remember on day 5 or so.)
  • Crash bicycle.
  • Get sunburned. (It's been over 100 semi-regularly this past week.)
  • Oversleep --> late for class.
  • Think I boiled the water when I really didn't --> diarrhea.
Well, I'm 3 for 6... not bad, so far. Knowing me, though, the rest are just a matter of time...

Anyway, on Friday afternoon we leave for Inner Mongolia. I'm pumped! Un(?)fortunately, that means I won't be blogging again until I get back the following weekend, but fear not: I'll probably double-blog it up (I've been saving a few special topics for such an occasion) to meet with Light Fellowship reporting requirements, and of course the petitions of my many fans.

In the not very relevant words of Gandalf: "Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east."

Until then, most truly yours,